UnderCover Waitress: Rue the Wretched Restroom

Monday, July 2, 2012

Rue the Wretched Restroom

Ask the Waitress!

This just in:

Can waitresses be required to clean restrooms as part of their duties? Clean up after "accidents"?

One of the paradoxes of the waitress job description is that there isn't one. In most states, waitresses can be asked to do anything, with the exception of illegal activities. So, the short answer to this question is that, depending upon what state you live in, you may be asked not only to refill soap dispensers and make sure the toilet paper roll is full, but also wash the diarrhea spray  off the walls around the toilet and mop up "accidents." Then back out to grab plates and walk food.

When Waitresses Clean Bathrooms

Nobody applies for her first waitress job expecting to clean the bathroom. She is much more likely to be thinking about interacting with customers and learning the restaurant's menu. Many are quite reasonably surprised to discover that disinfection of a public toilet gets swept into her food service job.

Please know that I do not look down on people who work as janitors, house cleaners, and sanitation engineers. As a matter of fact, I appreciate those who clean and clean well. My point here is simply that if someone applies to work as a maid, she will expect to clean bathrooms and perform other cleaning duties. A maid would not expect to make drinks.

In many restaurants, the wait staff are the only people who clean the bathrooms. This saves the owner money, but creates other problems.

Cooks and chefs know kitchen and food sanitation. They wash their hands, wear gloves during some food preparation, clean surfaces, clean the surfaces again, keep some things cold so they don't go bad, and other things hot so they don't go bad... you get the idea.

Nobody trains waitresses to clean the bathroom beyond, "Here is where we keep the Windex." Nobody is given gloves; I have had jobs in which I brought them for myself and jobs in which I used gloves from the kitchen supply. Windex and paper towels do most of the cleaning; usually there is something else for the toilet bowl and at some point the floor gets mopped. I remember working in a diner that had a mop that must have been older than I was. The mop head was black. I think it filthed the wash water and anything else it touched. The owner considered a new mop an unnecessary expense.

Non-Tipped Work

Whether you agree that it is unreasonable to expect wait staff to perform bathroom janitorial services, or whether you think I am just whining, there is the issue of tipped vs. non-tipped work.

Tipped employees make a lower minimum wage than non-tipped employees; tipped minimum wage is as low as $2.13 per hour in some states. The Department of Labor requires that a minimum of eighty percent of a tipped employee's time be spent performing tipped work.

If a tipped employee spends more than twenty percent of her time performing non-tipped work, the employer must pay her full minimum wage (currently $7.25 per hour or more) for the time spent on non-tipped duties.

So, in plain language: Let's say a waitress works a five hour shift. She spends four hours on the floor and one hour cleaning and performing sidework. Only twenty percent of her time was spent on non-tipped work, so she earns $2.13 for five hours plus tips.

Let's say a waitress works a six hour shift. She spends four hours on the floor and two hours performing non-tipped work. The employer owes her $7.25 for one hour, $2.13 for five hours and she also earned her tips. Make sense?

Lack of regulation in the restaurant industry makes it easy to shove all sorts of responsibilities on to the waitresses' shoulders. Some side work is reasonable, such as polishing silver, polishing glasses, vacuuming the dining room. Remember: side work is non-tipped work.

Add to side work cleaning the bar and restocking the bar. Washing dishes. Cleaning the bathrooms. Washing windows -- outside of the building. I got yelled at by a manager once because I didn't take it upon myself to shovel the walkway. I was supposed to magically know that I should be outside shovelling the walkway in my apron and Danskos instead of taking care of the dining room. Silly of me.

It takes times to complete all of the various and sundry chores that get hoisted onto the waitresses. But, if she spends more than twenty percent of her time on side work, she becomes expensive. That is why waitresses get grief for not working at the speed of light.

The way to get ten million things done in a short amount of time is to cut corners and not bother with being thorough. Which comes back to why waitresses should not be paid $2.13 an hour to clean bathrooms.

State Laws

Some states mandate that wait staff may only be asked to do side work that specifically relates to the dining room. To the best of my current knowledge, California, Massachusetts and New York are states in which waitresses may not be asked to work outside the dining room. In these states (if I'm correct,) I believe waitresses would have a good argument that restroom sanitation is not a dining room chore.


  1. I've never thought that the same person who is bringing me my food could have also been elbows-deep in a toilet only minutes before. Holy, crap! I am going to start asking the host/manager if they make the servers clean toilets! If yes, I'm not eating there. Will I starve?

    It also amazes me the restaurants do not: 1) respect servers as highly skilled, 2) guarantee them they will only do server duties and 3) Get paid better than any other place within a 10 mile radius. It is the old babysitter rule: If you pay the sitter best and stock the fridge best, you will always get the date you want open AND you can have higher expectations of performance AND the sitter exceeds them every time.

    Why do restaurant owners not know this? If a place has crappy servers, I don't care how good the food is, the experience is crap.

    1. Well, you might not starve, but it is a weight-loss technique that just might work... ;-)

      Seriously, if it makes you feel any better, on a usual shift the food server does not clean the restrooms until the end of the shift. The question that I was answering, however, mentioned "accidents." These situations need to be dealt with quickly, so... you get the idea.

      Some of us wash our hands religiously. Some of us.

      I know of restaurants (plural) with great food that went out of business due to poor service. So, your points are right on. Some business owners are simply penny wise and pound foolish.

  2. It seems like more than some owners are penny wise and pound foolish, doesn't it?

    1. Yes, it does. I have been thinking about the dynamic a lot lately; I believe it is not so much the restaurant industry per se, but rather, non-union, blue collar labor. Or unregulated labor. I could be wrong, but some of the vignettes from Nickel and Dimed may point to this.

  3. hi iam an experienced waitress ..i make 2.63 an hour..i recently started a new job and iam astonished at the amount of sidework iam required to perform..not only the usual..restocking ,clean and breakdown server station,marrying ketchups and syrups and sugarbowls..on top of the regular stuff..the other day for instance i was required to cut 2 huge pots of potatos,1 pot sweet potatoes,slice peppers and onions,cuut oranges ,make a cuke and tomato salad,all while continuing to grind and make coffee and wait on my tables..at the end of the shift ,once doors are locked..we are required to clear everything of the tables,lift the chairs they are solid meatl and oak so they are about 40lbs a piece)their are 60 of them..sweep and was floor ..take out trash..then clen bathrooms..take all the chairs down,rewipe and reset all the tables before we are allowed to leave..it seems like a lot..on top of that the owner also is a waitress..that being said she always keeps the better section which is the counter and the five front tables..so even on a slow day she is still busy..and i will be stuck running her food and clearing her dishes..is this legal??

    1. In most states, it is legal as long as no more than twenty percent of your time is spent performing "non-tipped" labor. When more than twenty percent of your time is spent on
      non-tipped labor, you should be paid full minimum wage for the difference.

      Sometimes when waitresses bring this up, they are simply told to work faster. Heh.

      Your job sounds pretty bad; you may wish to look elsewhere. You are being taken advantage of, although you may or may not have a legal complaint.


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